WASHINGTON — Election night 2006 was dreadful for Republican Senate candidates, but things could be just as bad two years from now.
As it now looks, the Republicans face a difficult struggle to gain seats in the Senate in 2008.
When the new Congress convenes in January, there will be 49 Republicans in the Senate and 51 Democrats (including nominal independents Sen.-elect Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.)
In 2008, the GOP will be defending 21 seats; the Democrats only 12.
Difficult conditions for GOP
Of the Republican seats up for re-election, three are held by men who will be over the age of 75. (Alaska’s Ted Stevens, New Mexico’s Pete Domenici, and Virginia’s John Warner).
Another four are in states which Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry carried in 2004.
And four are in states (Colorado, Virginia, Minnesota, and New Hampshire) where Democrats either elected senators on Nov. 7 or did very well up and down the state ballot.
Conversely there look to be only two Democratic incumbents, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who have struggled in the past and might face arduous re-election battles.
Admittedly it is early, and no one can predict what the environment will be in early 2008, but here’s a look at three trouble spots for Republicans.
Minnesota: Coleman seeks second term
In 2002, after the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone in a plane crash shortly before Election Day, Minnesota Democrats substituted former vice president Walter Mondale on the ballot.
Republican Norm Coleman edged Mondale by two percentage points.
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But what happened to Minnesota Republicans this year was sobering for Coleman and his supporters: Republican Mark Kennedy got 38 percent of the vote, the most wretched showing by a GOP Senate candidate in Minnesota since World War II, as he lost to Democrat Amy Klobuchar.
The Republicans also lost 19 seats in the lower house of the state legislature, giving control of that body to the Democrats.
And it was perhaps only a last-minute gaffe by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch (calling a reporter “a Republican whore”) that allowed Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty to defeat him, by one-tenth of one percent.
“I think there was a clear statement on Iraq and folks saying, ‘We want change,’ ” said Coleman as he assessed the wreckage the week after the election.
As have some other Republicans, Coleman suggested that if President Bush had forced out Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld earlier, instead of after the election, things might have turned out differently.
“He should have done it just to tell people, ‘I’m listening to you,’” Coleman said.
Vote with Democrats to save himself?
But the GOP incumbent rejected the notion offered by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that mainstream conservatives such as Coleman must now vote with the Democrats on many issues, out of self-preservation, if for no other reason.
“I don’t think there was an ideological message that came out of this (2006) campaign,” Coleman said. “The Democratic candidates, (Montana Sen.-elect Jon) Tester and (Virginia Sen.-elect Jim) Webb, ran as conservatives,” Coleman said. “Klobuchar ran as a moderate. She ran a great campaign, upbeat, positive, very mainstream. She did not run as a liberal.”
As for his own race in 2008, Coleman said, “I am a Republican who ran a Democrat city (as mayor of Saint Paul). I was a Democrat. I’m a conservative. But I work with the other side. I think that is the winning formula.”
Coleman said that if the Democrats run against him in 2008 charging that he’s too conservative for his state, they will lose.
“Minnesota is a state that is classically compassionate conservative,” he said. “I will run and continue to act as a compassionate conservative.”
On the issue of federal funding of embryonic stem cell research — which helped scuttle Missouri Republican Sen. Jim Talent on Election Day — Democrats will likely put to a vote the same bill Bush vetoed this year.
“And I’ll still going to try to find a middle ground,” Coleman said. “I don’t support federal dollars for the destruction of the human embryo. That’s my position. On the other hand, I’d like to find a middle ground and I think Minnesotans would like to find a middle ground.”
New Hampshire: A change since 2002
Like Minnesota, New Hampshire was the scene of Republican devastation on Election Day.
The GOP lost control of both houses of the state legislature and lost both of the state’s two House members.
Democratic Gov. John Lynch got three-quarters of the vote, unheard in a New Hampshire election.
Things are quite different from 2002, when Republican Sen. John Sununu defeated Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.
Political scientist Dante Scala who teaches at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. said, “In the 2002 election, both bases — the Republican base voters and the Democratic base — came out equally for Shaheen and Sununu. She had to get large percentage of independents to win. Now the gap between the Republican base and the Democratic base is closed: the Republican base is no longer much larger than the Democratic base.”
In Scala’s view, the Republicans in New Hampshire have been in a deteriorating condition since 2002. Independent voters in New Hampshire are finding the Democratic candidates more to their liking. According to exit poll interviews in the 2004 election Kerry got 56 percent of New Hampshire voters who identified themselves as independents, while Bush got 42 percent of them.
“As a senator Sununu has cast some votes that are fairly libertarian,” Scala said, pointing to his opposition to renewal of the Patriot Act. “It remains to be seen whether that will be enough.”
Colorado: Will Allard retire?
Two-term incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard is a folksy former veterinarian. Democrats have under-estimated him in the past and may do so again.
But Colorado, like Minnesota and New Hampshire, is trending Democratic. The Democrats won both this year’s governor’s race and an open House seat; they also gained seats in the state legislature.
Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli predicts that Allard, who said he'd serve only two terms, will not run for another term, even though “he’ll get an enormous amount of pressure” to do so from GOP leaders.
“He hasn’t raised a lot of money and he is just not acting like a candidate for re-election,” Ciruli said. As of the beginning of October, Allard had only $120,507 in cash, a pittance for a Senate candidate.
In contrast, likely Democratic candidate Rep. Mark Udall had a cash reserve of more than $1.3 million for his House race. Assuming he has most of that money left, Udall can transfer all of the remaining cash to his Senate campaign fund. Udall cruised to re-election to his House seat, with 67 percent of the vote.
If Allard does retire, a possible contender for his seat would be Republican Gov. Bill Owens who is term-limited and is leaving office.
But Owens has quarreled with GOP conservatives over a spending limit and over the immigration issue. So an Owens candidacy is no sure thing.
A true-blue GOP conservative who might run if Allard bows out is Rep. Tom Tancredo, the House’s most prominent opponent of illegal immigration.
“We like our crowded Republican primaries in Colorado,” said Colorado-based GOP strategist Patrick Davis. “The more candidates in the race, the sharper the elbows that get thrown.”
On Democratic-trending states such as Colorado hinge the Republicans’ chances of getting back their Senate majority any time soon. At this point there seem to be ample reasons for cautious pessimism among Republicans.
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